The NCAA’s Division I Council last week granted all spring sports student-athletes an extra year of eligibility to account for the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the many effects of that ruling—as well as MLB’s decision to hold a drastically shortened draft, perhaps as few as five rounds—is that many college baseball rosters will be facing a crunch next year. The Council exempted returning seniors from college baseball’s roster caps—a maximum of 35 players on the roster, 27 of whom can be on scholarship and a maximum of 11.7 scholarships—but there are still only nine players on the diamond and 27 spots on a travel roster.
It’s too early to know just how many more players there will be in college baseball next year due to numerous factors ranging from the draft to graduate school plans to the financial costs of playing another year of baseball, a partial scholarship sport.
But while players around the country mull those questions, we can analyze which schools will face the biggest crunch from a few of the factors in play—returning seniors, fewer juniors getting drafted and fewer prep players entering pro ball.
Because the NCAA ruled that only players who were set to exhaust their eligibility in 2020 will be exempt from the roster caps this study is focused on those players. Many redshirt juniors will also have tough decisions to make, as they also are likely approaching graduation or were expecting to be in the mix to get drafted. But, for these purposes, the focus is on players who this spring were true or redshirt seniors.
This analysis includes every team that plays in a conference that ranked in the top 15 of this season’s conference RPI, according to WarrenNolan.com. With 31 baseball-playing conferences in Division I, that roughly approximates the top half of the sport. The teams that make up these 15 conferences (American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Big West, CAA, Conference USA, Missouri Valley, Pac-12, SEC, Southern, Southland, Sun Belt and West Coast) total 159 teams, more than half of the 301 Division I teams.
The teams in those 15 conferences had a total of 1,038 seniors on their rosters, for an average of 6.53 per team. Approximately a fifth of the players in those conferences are seniors.
At the high end, Louisiana-Monroe and Santa Clara both had 15 seniors on their roster, tied for the most seniors among the teams in the 15 conferences. It won’t come as a surprise to many in college baseball that both ULM and Santa Clara were off to better than normal 12-5 starts. It has long been held in college baseball that teams outside the traditional power structure are at their most competitive when they are older and more experienced than their opponents.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arkansas, Clemson and Minnesota all had just one senior apiece. Vanderbilt, the reigning national champion, had two seniors on its roster and Florida, the top-ranked team in the Top 25, had four.
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The Pac-12 had the least seniors per team of the 15 conferences studied at 3.91, slightly less than the SEC’s 4.21 seniors per team. The Colonial Athletic Association had the most seniors per team at 8.44 per team, buoyed by three teams with more than 10 seniors each, slightly ahead of the Southland Conference’s 8.31 seniors per team. The Missouri Valley Conference and Sun Belt Conference also average at least eight seniors per team.
The teams with the least seniors tended to be in traditional power conferences. The ACC, Pac-12 and SEC all have, on average, less than five seniors per team. Overall, the further a conference is from the top of conference RPI, the more seniors its teams averaged on their rosters. The conference that bucked that trend most significantly is the Big East, which averaged just 5.29 seniors on its rosters, the fourth lowest.
The dearth of seniors in college baseball’s best conferences is hardly surprising. The MLB draft annually pulls away the best juniors—the first year most players are draft eligible once they enroll in a four-year school. The draft’s format also encourages players to sign before their senior year because once they have exhausted their college eligibility, they hold little leverage in negotiations with MLB teams and end up with smaller signing bonuses then their younger peers.
The data showing that teams outside the biggest conferences have a greater percentage of seniors on the roster is not a surprise either. The majority of juniors are drafted from college baseball’s elite programs, which are largely concentrated in the sport’s six or seven best conferences. That means players in mid-major conferences are more likely to reach their senior year of college.
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What does all of this mean for 2021? Is the Pac-12 doomed because it will have fewer fifth-year seniors on its teams? Could the CAA or the MVC be in for a banner year?
It’s probably still too early to know for sure which teams and conferences will be most affected by eligibility relief. While the Division I Council ruled that all players have an extra year of eligibility and exempted seniors from roster caps, it did give schools and conferences flexibility to work within those parameters. The Council left it up to individual schools on a case-by-case basis to determine how much aid to offer 2020 seniors.
Schools will be able to offer less aid than they offered a player in 2020 or match it, but not exceed it. That could mean that within one program a player gets offered a spot back, but none of his scholarship money, while another player is brought back at 100 percent of what he received in 2020.
The Ivy League, which was not a part of this study, does not allow graduate students to compete in sports and has already ruled it will not make an exception to that rule for spring sports athletes in 2021. Effectively, that means any 2020 senior in an Ivy League program that didn’t take a medical redshirt will have to transfer to make use of their extra year of eligibility. Individual schools, whether for financial reasons or for reasons similar to the Ivy League’s stance that athletics are for undergraduates, may also not welcome back their seniors.
Beyond that, there are professional considerations, both in and outside of baseball. The draft and any undrafted free agent opportunities will have to play out. And many seniors who are slated to graduate this spring already have job offers or graduate school plans that now must be weighed against another season of college baseball.
So, while schools in the Power Five conferences have fewer seniors to begin with, they may be able to better retain them. With bigger athletic department budgets, those schools are more likely to exceed the 11.7 scholarship maximum to bring back their seniors. Already, six of Oklahoma’s seven seniors announced they will return in 2021, a strong side for a team that surged into the top 10 in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
Some mid-major schools may struggle to do the same, particularly with seniors making up such a large percentage of their rosters. But some teams will sense an opportunity, particularly those with strong baseball traditions. McNeese State, the Southland favorite in 2020, has already made a splash with its returners.
For mid-major schools, this data shows which programs will be squeezed the tightest in 2021. Few schools around the country will find it easy financially to retain 10 extra players on scholarship. And, even if they can, finding a way to manage a roster with an extra 10 players on it will be no easy task for coaches.
Much remains to be sorted out in the coming weeks and months. But after examining the rosters of more than half of college baseball, it becomes more clear which programs are most impacted by the Division I Council’s decision to grant eligibility relief.